Whitelash? An Alternative Theory on Trump’s Win

It’s been a few weeks since the election, and a few interesting narratives have seemed to pop up surrounding what, exactly, happened. I thought it might be interesting to dig into a few of them, and add a few more thoughts that I’ve had since the election.

Note: The majority of data used below comes from CNN exit polls along with the Wikipedia articles on the results of the 2012 and 2016 elections.

What whitelash?

One of the more talked about moments from election night is when Van Jones referred to the Trump victory as a whitelash, without really presenting any evidence to back it up. Another theme that I saw repeated on social media was the idea that all the racists and bigots voted for Trump. People were bemoaning that they were ashamed to live in a country filled with so many racists. It’s a gripping narrative, but the numbers don’t seem to back it up.

The majority of Clinton voters were white, while the majority of Trump voters were either female or non-white.

Donald Trump got a smaller percentage of white voters than Mitt Romney got 4 years ago. Trump got a higher percentage of black, Asian and Hispanic(!) voters. Let that sink in for a moment. The supposed “whitelash” candidate supported by racists and bigots actually did better with blacks, Asians and Hispanics than the Republican candidate from four years ago.

Here’s another interesting nugget: The majority of Clinton voters were white, while the majority of Trump voters were either female or non-white.

Curious how the numbers work out? 135 million people voted in the election. According to CNN exit polls, whites made up 71% of the voting population and 37% of whites voted for Clinton. 135 million * 0.71 * 0.37 = ~35 million votes, which is over half of Clinton’s vote total. On the Trump side, white males made up 34% of the voting population and 62% voted for Trump. 135 million * 0.34 * 0.62 = ~28 million votes, which is less than half of Trump’s vote total, meaning the majority of Trump voters were female OR non-white.

There are also a number of articles online talking about Obama voters who voted for Trump. At the very least, that seems to complicate the narrative that Trump’s election is some sort of whitelash in response to a black president.

Clinton lost the election more than Trump won it

So much of the aftermath of the election has focused on how Trump won the election, but the better question would be how Clinton lost it. Look at the table below of vote totals for the 2012 and 2016 elections:

2012 Candidate2012 Vote Total2016 Candidate2016 Vote Total
Barack Obama65,915,795 Hillary Clinton64,925,492
Mitt Romney60,933,504 Donald Trump62,562,131

*All numbers as of November 30th, 2016.

This PBS article goes into some of the numbers and why the big story of the election is voters not turning out for Clinton. Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason also had a great article detailing this. In 2012, Mitt Romney got roughly 61 million votes. In 2016, with over 5 million more votes cast, Donald Trump only managed to get a little over 1.5 million more votes (about 26% of the additional votes). Hillary Clinton did even worse, getting about 1 million fewer votes than Barack Obama had. The story of the election seems to be less about how Donald Trump was able to appeal to voters and more about why Hillary Clinton wasn’t able to appeal to them.

“Exit-poll data is far from precise, but it does at least give us an informed idea of why things went the way they did. And all signs indicate that it wasn’t some radical realignment of voting blocs nor new and unique conditions that drove Donald Trump to victory. Like so many GOP leaders before him, Trump’s support was derived largely from older, white, and middle- to upper-class voters, with young people, non-whites, and working-class voters overwhelmingly choosing Clinton. But Clinton couldn’t get as much support from these groups as she needed to counter the predictable wave of older, white voters for Trump.

Across every key Democratic demographic, Clinton’s numbers were down compared to Barack Obama’s in 2012. According to CNN exit polls, 88 percent of black voters chose Clinton this year, while 93 percent of black voters went with Obama in 2012. Black voters also made up less of the total electorate this year—12 percent, down from 13 percent.” (Reason, “Trump Didn’t Win Because He’s Trump. He Won Because Clinton Is Clinton“)

Glass ceiling

Can we stop the hand-wringing about what Clinton’s loss means for the glass ceiling? Yes, we’ve still never had a female president, but that doesn’t mean there is institutional sexism keeping women down. Clinton lost 41% of the female vote to quite possibly the most sexist major party candidate in my lifetime. Apparently women aren’t required to vote for a candidate with the same genitalia as them.

Blaming third parties is ridiculous

More democrats voted for Trump than third parties by over a 4-1 margin.

Thankfully it hasn’t been made into a big issue yet, but third parties have historically been popular whipping boys in elections where Democrats win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote (see Ralph Nader in 2000). It’s an absurd argument. Reason has a good article about it. If you want the short story, though, here it is: 2% of Democrats voted for “other” (presumably a mix of third party candidates and write-ins) while 9% voted for Trump. More Democrats voted for Trump than third parties by over a 4-1 margin. Maybe instead of obsessing over the relatively small number of Democrats who decided to vote their conscious instead of toeing the party line, Democrats can do some soul searching and think about why 9% of their members decided to vote for Trump instead of their candidate.

Trump was viewed negatively, but perhaps Clinton was viewed even worse

So much of the talk surrounding the election (both leading up to it and carrying on afterwards) focused on how bad of a candidate Trump was. Seemingly every day a new scandal erupted over something Trump said or did. Is it possible all of this media attention overshadowed the fact that Clinton was also a horrible candidate plagued with scandals? Reason had an article about a Pew Research Center survey polling people’s expectations on what a theoretical Trump or Clinton presidency would bring. Unsurprisingly (or perhaps surprisingly, considering he won the election), Trump got negative scores across the board. Interestingly, though, Clinton not only also got negative scores across the board but she also lost to Trump in three out of the five.

If not a whitelash or a glass ceiling or third parties, then what?

So if the major story out of the election isn’t about bigotry or sexism or wasted votes, then what is it? Allow me to propose a theory: This election was more about change than bigotry. Point #8 of this Washington Post article touches on an important idea. Whatever else can be said about Trump, as the candidate with zero prior political experience, he was definitely the candidate of change. On the flip side, Clinton was indisputably the candidate of the political establishment and status quo. With congressional approval ratings approaching the single digits, a national debt spiraling out of control, the continuing trouble with Obamacare, and an uncertain foreign policy that has led to the rise of ISIS and a resurgent Russia, is it a surprise that voters might be looking for somebody, anybody, who promises to bring about change? Obama ran as a politically inexperienced change candidate and defeated the much more experienced establishment candidacies of Clinton and McCain 8 years ago, so this thirst for change is nothing new.

Anecdotally,  I’ve heard (both online and in person) from people who were considering voting for Trump. The reasons given for voting for Trump were never about keeping Muslims out or building a wall or even about immigration at all. The reasons I heard were always about stopping Hillary from winning and/or the feeling that, as a political outsider, Trump would at least shake things up. With regard to Trump’s controversial statements about Mexicans, Muslims, women and everybody else, those Trump voters either seemed to think that Trump didn’t actually believe any of those things or were willing to support him despite those statements (as opposed to because of them).

There’s also something to be said for not assuming everybody follows politics as much as some people (myself included) might think. There’s lots of evidence showing the majority of Americans don’t follow elections that closely (which explains why almost half apparently couldn’t name the VP candidates right before the vice-presidential debate). If you weren’t paying much attention, then it’s easy to see how Trump could come across as a successful businessman and political outsider who is politically incorrect, shakes up the media and political establishment, and isn’t beholden to lobbyists and political interests because he’s so wealthy. From that perspective, he actually seems like a really appealing candidate and I could see why somebody who only really knew that about Trump would be interested in voting for him.

All I am suggesting is that maybe, just maybe, not all 62 million people who voted for Trump are racist or sexist or both. Maybe the reasons are more complicated.

I’m not at all saying that there aren’t racists and sexists who voted for Trump. There’s plenty of evidence that he benefited from their support, starting with the endorsements of David Duke and the KKK. I’m also not at all denying that Trump has courted those votes. All I am suggesting is that maybe, just maybe, not all 62 million people who voted for Trump are racist or sexist or both. Maybe the reasons are more complicated. Maybe they were motivated by other factors, such as a desire for change or just not wanting to see Hillary Clinton become president. Maybe it’s as simple as people being uninformed (just look at how many people still think WMDs were found in Iraq or that Obama isn’t a US Citizen).

There’s been a lot of ink spilled the past few weeks reacting to one of the most shocking presidential elections in history. My hope is that people try to avoid knee-jerk overreactions that comply with their worldview and instead realize that people are complex, with complicated motivations that don’t always easily boil down to simple solutions. Understanding that is a good step towards understanding the “other” side, and I think we can all use as much of that as we can get right now.


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Paul Essen
Founder and Chief Discourse Officer at Rampant Discourse
Proud geek. Trekkie. Browncoat. Entil'Zha. First human spectre. Hokie. Black belt. Invests Foolishly. Loves games of all types and never has enough time to play as many as he wants. Libertarian who looks forward to the day he votes for a winning presidential candidate. Father to two beautiful daughters.

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